IRAQ: First US soldiers go AWOL

Issue 

BY ROHAN PEARCE

At a Pentagon briefing on October 21, in response to a question about soldiers who had missed their flights back to Iraq, General Peter Pace, vice-chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told journalists that "there are in fact some soldiers who did not return when we thought they were going to return", but "the vast majority of those have already been tracked back to guys who missed planes, missed connections".

According to the October 5 New York Post, however, an affidavit submitted to a recent court martial for a soldier charged with desertion put the number of troops who have gone AWOL ("absent without leave") at more than 50.

The GI Rights Hotline logged a 75% increase in calls in the 12 weeks leading up to the Post's article — calls to the hotline have risen to 3500 per month.

More than 100 of the calls were queries about the penalties for going AWOL; some troops were calling from their barracks in Iraq. One caller said he was going to shoot himself in the foot so he could go home.

In an effort to prevent soldiers being tempted to desert, soldiers who have been allowed leave have been encouraged to take it in Germany rather than return home.

The first desertions by US soldiers from the war in Iraq indicate that this war is beginning to have a similar impact on the US armed forces as the US war in Vietnam did three decades ago.

A graphic account of the impact of the Vietnam War on the morale of GIs was provided by an article in the June 7, 1971, edition of the Armed Forces Journal. Titled "The collapse of the armed forces" and written by Colonel Robert D. Heinl junior, the article took stock of the state of the US military, six years after Washington made its first major commitment of troops to the war against Vietnam's national liberation forces. Heinl's assessment? "The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the US armed forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the history of the United States."

The manifestations of this included "pandemic drug addiction", "draftee recalcitrance and malevolence", failure to obey orders (including to fight) and the practice of "fragging" — "the murder or attempted murder of strict, unpopular or just aggressive officers and NCOs [non-commissioned officers]".

Demoralisation

There has not been a similar disintegration of discipline among the US troops occupying Iraq — yet. But, judging by a survey of US military personnel conducted by the Pentagon's Stars and Stripes newspaper, the US rulers should start worrying.

Stars and Stripes collected questionnaires from 1935 troops stationed in Iraq over the period from August 10 to August 31. While the poll was only conducted using a "convenience sample" (i.e., the results were based on those who returned surveys, not a completely random sample), it indisputably shows growing demoralisation and confusion among US troops.

The survey revealed that an astonishing (in light of the official line coming from the White House and the Pentagon ) 31% of respondents thought that fighting the war against Iraq was either of little value or not worthwhile at all. Asked how clearly their mission was defined, over one-third of respondents felt that it was "mostly not clear" or "not clear at all", in almost equal numbers. Only 21% felt that their mission was very clear.

This loss of a sense of purpose, brought about by the continual extension of deployment and a shift from conventional military engagements to policing a largely hostile Iraqi population, signals a trend that may yet result in the same sort of dramatic loss in military effectiveness that the US forces underwent during the Vietnam War.

Heinl's article quoted the account of a solider stationed in southern Vietnam's Cu Chi district, just north of Saigon: "They have set up separate companies for men who refuse to go into the field. It's no big thing to refuse to go. If a man is ordered to go to such and such a place he no longer goes through the hassle of refusing; he just packs his shirt and goes to visit some buddies at another base camp... Many guys don't even put on their uniforms any more... There have also been quite a few frag incidents in the battalion."

"Can all this really be typical or even truthful?", asked Heinl. "Unfortunately, the answer is yes."

At an October 3 New Jersey protest calling for the US troops in Iraq to be returned home, Frank Mendez, a 23-year-old US Army reservist who was on leave from deployment in Iraq, summed up what many GIs seem to be feeling: "I had no problem going into this. I knew the mission going in: We were going to find weapons of mass destruction. Only there weren't any. Then the mission became bringing democracy to Iraq. But now we're just in the country sitting on our butts wasting taxpayers' money and wasting our time."

The Stars and Stripes' survey clearly indicates that most US soldiers in Iraq feel that they aren't trained to deal with policing a hostile population or trying to root out the Iraqi guerilla fighters — only 9% indicated that their current duties were identical to their training, and only 20% indicated that their duties were "very close" to their training. Forty per cent chose "not close" or "nothing to do with training".

It's not hard to understand why the US occupation troops' morale is dropping. Tours of duty have been extended far beyond what most soldiers were expecting, and the US Central Command only began an "R & R" leave program (of up to 15 days) on September 24. In addition, living conditions for troops vary from bearable to terrible.

Hostile population

However, the most likely significant factor contributing to low morale is the shift from invasion to occupation — living amidst a population which is, for the most part, either ambivalent or actively hostile to the troops' presence.

The absence of any clearly identified enemy, discounting the Iraqi civilian population, means that the constant attacks on occupation soldiers are sapping morale. Attacks on US and allied troops in Iraq are in the region of 20-30 per day.

The Iraq Coalition Casualty Count web site (<http://lunaville.org/warcasualties/Summary.aspx>) puts the number of deaths of coalition troops at 402, as of October 24. Of these, 230 have occurred since US President George Bush declared on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1 that "major combat operations" had ended. While this is only a tiny number in an occupation force numbering nearly 150,000 troops, the body count continues to grow almost daily.

A September 14 report by the British Observer revealed that more than 6000 occupation troops had been evacuated from Iraq for medical reasons since the US invaded, "including more than 1500 American soldiers who have been wounded, many seriously".

However, even attacks by Iraqi resistance fighters which fail to kill or wound occupation troops are still having an impact. Fighting against forces which are part of the local population and seamlessly blend in with it, instead of fighting a more conventional military force, appears to have generated an atmosphere of paranoia among some occupation troops (as well as reinforced a colonial mind set).

In June, Bob Graham, a reporter for the London Evening Standard, conducted a series of interviews with US troops stationed in Iraq which revealed a stark picture of deteriorating mental and emotional health among the occupation forces. A sergeant told Graham: "You can't distinguish between who's trying to kill you and who's not. Like, the only way to get through shit like that was to concentrate on getting through it by killing as many people as you can, people you know are trying to kill you. Killing them first and getting home."

Another soldier told Graham how "at night time you think about all the people you killed... There's no chance to forget it, we're still here, we've been here so long. Some soldiers don't even fucking sleep at night. They sit up all fucking night long doing shit to keep themselves busy — to keep their minds off this fucking stuff. It's the only way they can handle it."

Suicide

Even more revealing is the rate of suicide among US soldiers deployed in Iraq. At least 14 US troops have committed suicide over the last seven months — possibly more than 20 may have taken their own lives. This equates to an annual rate of at least 17 per 100,000 troops — higher than the 10-13 per 100,000 per year average of the US Army and the 8-9 per 100,000 in the US military services overall. Most of the suicides have been since Bush declared "major combat operations" over.

The correlation between deteriorating mental health, loss of morale, a sense of purposelessness, extended tours of duty and the decline in the fighting ability of an army are not hard to understand. In World War II, desertions of US troops peaked at 63 per 1000 troops in 1945, which, as Heinl noted in his article, was the same year that more soldiers were being discharged for mental illness than were being drafted.

The pressure is on for Washington to develop a workable troop rotation plan. The Pentagon's current (public) plan is to rotate the US troops in Iraq over a four-month period at the start of 2004. However, the US-controlled Coalition Provisional Authority which currently rules Iraq has so far been unable to create an Iraqi force guaranteed to remain loyal to Washington and large enough to defeat the Iraqi resistance.

Despite the successful passage of the White House's latest UN Security Council resolution on October 16, no significant new contributions of troops or money to aid the occupation have been forthcoming.

Furthermore, 49% of respondents in the Stars and Stripes survey indicated that it was either "not likely" or "very unlikely" that they would stay in the military after their current obligation is complete — a statistic which doesn't bode well for the US capitalist rulers' ability to maintain the US armed forces as an effective tool for global domination.

From Green Left Weekly, October 29, 2003.
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